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Inspiring Woman: Dr. Anna Patchias, of Champion Tutoring

inspiring woman2Welcome to a new feature on Traveling with Baby.  Inspiring Woman is a monthly column on the first Monday of each month that features interviews with amazing and inspiring women.  These women are moms, community leaders, entrepreneurs, or everyday heroes–each is making her corner of the world a better place.  If you know of an amazing woman who would be a great fit for this feature, please e-mail me with more details: drgarnecki [at] gmail [dot] com.

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It is such a delight to introduce you to Dr. Anna Patchias, mom of baby James, owner and Executive Director of Champion Tutoring, and the 2009 Chair of the Business Women’s Round Table (BWRT), an organization of the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Anna Patchias, Ph.D. and her baby boy James

Anna Patchias, Ph.D. and her baby boy James

I first heard Anna speak at Quadruplicity, a business seminar created by women entrepreneurs to help other women in business find balance with the many hats they wear on a daily basis.  She was full of confidence and poise,  and I thought that I would love to meet her and learn from her.  I heard her speak again and again at the monthly BWRT meetings that she chairs, and again, I loved her warm hospitality in a large networking group that made everyone feel welcome.

I already knew Anna ran a successful tutoring company in addition to volunteering a leadership position at the Chamber of Commerce, but what really intrigued me is that she mostly works from home so she can spend more time with her beautiful son James.  I wanted to find out her secrets to balance with so many huge demands on her time, and I’m so happy she agreed to be the first person interviewed for the Inspiring Woman column.

Business Inspiration

TwB: What motivated you to purchase Champion Tutoring and to become an entrepreneur?

AP: My relationship with Champion TutoringChampion logo began when I was hired by the company’s founder and previous owner to work as a part-time English tutor. At that time, I was working on my doctorate in English literature. I had worked as a tutor at the University of Virginia (UVa), and I’d also taught a wide range of college writing and literature classes, but I’d never tutored school-age students before. It was an incredibly rewarding experience making a difference in the lives of young people. Today, I make it a priority to hire UVa grad students because I believe I have a responsibility as an entrepreneur to provide fair job opportunities in my community.

TwB: What’s been your biggest challenge and biggest inspiration as a business owner?

AP: My job as owner and Executive Director of Champion Tutoring has been both challenging and exhilarating. There is no typical day because I wear so many hats: marketing, community relations, financial and strategic planning, and – up until I became a mother – I was also the “daily operations” person, meeting with potential clients, troubleshooting with parents, and supervising a teaching staff of 30-35 part-time tutors. The biggest challenges were the practical, mundane, and daily aspects of running a business; these skills were not taught in academia, so I acquired them through hard work and also by asking for help from experts.

TwB: Congrats on celebrating Champion Tutoring’s 15-year anniversary–what a great milestone! What changes did you make once you bought the business, and what changes or goals do you have for it’s next 15 years?

AP: Because Champion was founded by a middle school math teacher with no business experience, the company started out small, with just a few tutors in one small office suite. A well-run company that prioritized each student’s individual learning style, it’s not surprising that it grew quickly. By the time I purchased the company, we celebrated its 10th anniversary, and it had grown by leaps and bounds. Yet, it still functioned like a tiny business, with outdated data management systems and little or no sales tracking. My first challenge was to grow revenues enough to be enable us to move to a [better] space that celebrated and proclaimed our success to the world; that’s just what we did in 2006.

After 5 years at the helm, I have turned over daily operations and management to my Director of Education, a writer and experienced educator in her own right. I still oversee marketing, community relations, and financial/strategic planning, but the Director of Education is in charge of everything else. Together, she and I are formulating a new strategic plan that will take the company through its second decade.

Finding Balance

TwB: How do you balance your time (at work and with family)?

AP: It was a tough first year as a working mom and business owner. I wanted to work from home in order to spend most of my time with my new baby. I was fortunate to have my husband’s emotional and financial support in this decision, since it meant a salary reduction for me. I was also extremely fortunate to be able to hire our Director of Education, who in one short year has put her own mark on the company while preserving its core values.

I wanted to stay true to my company’s vision but also to honor my choice to focus on my family.

I realized it’s not only okay but necessary to fly by the seat of you pants sometimes – I think most moms figure this out eventually.

TwB: How did running a successful business change once you became a mom?
(pregnancy, post-partum, etc.)

AP: I learned to let go and trust the wonderful person whom I had hired, and really delegate important things to her. For example, I had always done the recruiting and hiring even before I owned the company. The stellar teachers at Champion Tutoring are at the heart of our educational mission, so finding and retaining such talented people takes a great deal of hard work. But, it quickly became evident that I had to delegate this job to our Director of Education, and she has done an amazing job. This was a learning experience for me as a mom and as a business owner, since

It taught me a valuable lesson about how to let go, and embrace my new role as a mother.

Advice for Mompreneurs

TwB: What advice do you have for moms with babies or small children who are interested in launching a business from home or running a business part-time and still maximizing time with their children?

AP: First, do your homework because owning and running a business is a very hard life. Second, ask for help anywhere you can get it, as long as it’s a reputable source. For example, in order to compensate for my lack of business training, I sought free business counseling from SCORE (Service Corps of Retired Executives), and enrolled in their business short courses. I also joined my local Chamber of Commerce to pursue networking and leadership opportunities.

My most important realization: I was ready to admit what I didn’t know and seek out advice and guidance from colleagues and mentors.

The issue of life/work balance for mothers who are starting a business is a tricky one; in the early stages, starting a business (no matter what kind) takes a great deal of time and hard work, and it does tend to take over your entire life.

Be realistic about this process but also set limits to protect your time with your children.

And hire help – even a few hours a week with a babysitter in my home has allowed me to get concentrated amounts of work done while knowing that my baby is safe and happy.

Tutoring Tips for Parents

TwB: What’s the greatest benefit that Champion Tutoring offers students?

AP: At Champion, we believe in innovative approaches to learning, and we treat our students as individuals because we know that every student learns differently. Because Champion is not a chain or franchise, we do not answer to a corporate entity but rather give our teachers the freedom to craft an individualized approach to each student’s learning process. Often, this endeavor will involve creative instructional methods, but most important is the connection between teacher and student. We do our utmost to match students with the right instructors, recognizing that this often makes all the difference in the learning process.

TwB: What signs should parents look for to determine if their children need help with learning in a particular subject, whether they’re home schooled, public, or private students?

AP: The obvious answer is of course to assess whether your child’s grades take a downturn, either across the board or in a specific subject. But grades cannot be the only measure.

Rather, good communication is the ultimate parental tool.

It is important to maintain an age-appropriate involvement in your child’s academic journey and to maintain close ties with his/her school and teacher.

It goes without saying that parents should attend all parent conferences. A parent can and should request a teacher conference if they suspect that his child is having difficulty or evinces any anxiety about a particular subject, class, or teacher. Certainly, the goal is to empower your child to self-assess and to speak up if he or she is having difficulty, but not every temperament is suited to this and kids mature at different rates. This is why it’s so important for parents to ask questions about schoolwork and to participate – in ethical and appropriate ways – in the homework process.

TwB: Can you offer parents helpful tips to reinforce learning and to strengthen academic skills at home?

AP: Communication is the key ingredient in the parent-child relationship, especially when it comes to academics. The other key word here is confidence – it is imperative that parents see beyond the issue of grades in order to help their child to become engaged in their own learning process and thus gain confidence in themselves. Rather, in addition to using grades as a measure of success, parents will find that reaching out to their child about a particular learning experience will often lead to more substantive discussions about school/learning than a grade-centered discussion would. A balance must exist of course and every family must find one that accords with their goals and values.

TwB: How would you suggest parents determine the best
tutor or tutoring company for their child?

AP: If a parent is hiring a private tutor, it is essential to ask for at least two and preferably three references from parents and students whom the tutor has recently taught. During this vetting process, ask the parents/students detailed questions about the tutor’s teaching style, and his/her approach to learning.

An essential feature of a private tutor is someone who can adapt to different learning styles and needs.

If the parent is using a tutoring company, the first place to go is to other parents – ask for referrals from multiple friends and acquaintances, preferably people whom you trust, and who know you and your child. Then, armed with these referrals, call each place and ask to speak to the main administrator of the tutoring center. Find out who does the hiring and what their hiring criteria are, and ask about the credentials of the tutors who work there; ask how tutors are matched to students, and also ask about the teaching philosophy of the tutoring center. And most important of all as you do this “homework,” trust your gut.

I highly recommend visiting the tutoring center to get a feel for the place before you commit, and bring your child along too. At Champion, we encourage this type of research and we never pressure parents or kids to become our clients – we believe that each family knows best whether Champion is the right “fit” for them and this is a very personal decision. So, if you feel like a particular person or company is giving you the “hard sell,” turn around and walk out the door – they do not believe in their product strongly enough to let it speak for itself.

Strengthening Learning Skills

TwB: What are the most common subject areas where students need tutoring assistance?

AP: We tutor a very wide array of subjects, but the phone rings off the hook for mathematics help. Our second most popular subject is SAT prep – the college application process has become increasingly competitive and test preparation is now viewed as an essential feature of that journey. We seek to empower the student to face the SAT while also doing our best not to succumb to hysteria about it.

TwB: What are your most global and all-encompassing suggestions that would help the majority of children improve or excel in academics?

Every student is different and different families have varying priorities and goals for their children. Good communication between parents and kids about school is essential, as is a strong relationship between parents and educators. In both cases, the onus is on the parents, however, to develop and maintain these relationships. Each child has his or her individual academic journey, and parents should be partners with their kids in that journey—whatever methods or techniques parents use to get there should be determined by their child’s age, temperament, and goals, as well as the values of the family.

TwB: You’ve developed a strong relationship working with UVa’s Department of Academic Affairs and Athletics to teach student and organizational skills to college athletes. What skills sets tend to help students the most?

AP: As an educator and administer, teaching study skills is one of the most difficult challenges I’ve ever faced. There are proven techniques of note-taking, outlining, and many others that can help students to excel, whether they are just starting high school or are student-athletes at UVa. I have taught these specific techniques to many students, but the key is to craft an individualized plan, and then to help the student come up with a “grab bag” of tools and techniques that they always have at their disposal. Without some goal-setting and self-assessment, all the techniques in the world won’t help, so in every study skills course there must be time spent on understanding that particular student’s strengths and weaknesses, and then teaching the student how to capitalize on the former and compensate for the latter.

The breakthroughs happen when students understand that they don’t have to love every class or be an expert in every subject – they just have to set realistic goals and make an action plan to realize those goals.

Once a student understand this, he or she gets very excited to apply the study techniques, trying different tools, and finding the right combination that works for them.

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